Column: For the White Sox and Cubs, the postseason is a chance to rewrite their 2020 narratives
Speaking with the media over Zoom before a game in early August, Chicago Cubs manager David Ross was defiant.
“Our record speaks for itself,” he said.
He wasn’t talking about the state of the Cubs on the field. The first-year manager was referring to the team’s perfect record in COVID-19 testing, which would remain at zero positive tests for players the entire season.
Of course, that quote also could apply to the Cubs’ 34-26 record during this pandemic-shortened season, which was good enough to win the National League Central but disappointing in light of their 13-3 start.
The same could be said for Rick Renteria’s Chicago White Sox, who went a more-than-respectable 35-25 in the 60-game season but lost nine of their last 12 games to enter the postseason on a down note.
Fortunately for the men in charge of our two major-league teams, the records are insignificant now as they make their postseason managerial debuts.
The Sox and Cubs get a chance to rewrite their narratives in the postseason, starting Tuesday with Game 1 of the Sox-Athletics American League wild-card series in Oakland, Calif.
The managers only can put the right players in the right spots. Then it’s up to them to do their jobs.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to stay out of their way,” Renteria said Monday on a teleconference from Oakland.
Can both Chicago teams advance to their bubbles in the division series?
Yes, they can.
Yes, they should.
Though the Sox may be underdogs to the second-seeded A’s, they have a far superior lineup and the two best starting pitchers in the series in Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. With Eloy Jimenez expected back from his foot sprain and the Sox facing lefty Jesus Luzardo in the opener, there’s no reason not to believe. They went 14-0 against left-handed starters this year, hitting .285 against them with an .887 OPS.
“I guess they haven’t did their homework,” shortstop Tim Anderson said Monday when apprised of the A’s starter.
The A’s hit .225 as a team, second-worst in the AL, and their starters were 16th in the majors with a 4.49 ERA, second-worst of any AL playoff team. They got by on the strength of their bullpen, which led the majors with a 2.72 ERA — almost two runs per game below the league average of 4.44. A’s manager Doug Melvin didn’t overwork his pen, which ranked 22nd in innings pitched.
Suffice to say it’s imperative for the Sox to have a late lead with lefty Jake Diekman (0.42 ERA), Yusmeiro Petit (1.66), J.B. Wendelken (1.80) and closer Liam Hendriks (1.78) ready to go for the A’s from the fifth inning on.
“We’re going to need the unsung heroes to perform if we’re going to have a chance at this whole thing,” Keuchel said back in July. “Pitching and a great offense will get you to the playoffs. But in the playoffs is when the unsung heroes, the guys not used as much in the bullpen, are going to have to come out and perform because everybody in the playoffs is good.”
We’ve watched enough games this summer to know things could break bad at a moment’s notice, so no one is getting his or her hopes too high. The Sox went 21-3 against the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates and 14-22 against everyone else. They hit .214 over their last 14 games with a .291 on-base percentage as a schedule that included 17 games with no days off down the stretch seemed to wear them down.
“It’s a brand new season,” Giolito said Monday. “Everything we did up to this point doesn’t matter anymore. ... Like (Anderson) said, it’s the same game. We know what we need to do to be successful. That’s all we have to do.”
The Cubs have a much easier task, playing at Wrigley Field against a rebuilding Miami Marlins team that wouldn’t be in the postseason in a normal year. The Cubs are significantly more experienced than the Marlins, whose only household names are part-owner Derek Jeter and manager Don Mattingly.
With Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks starting the first two games in cool weather fit for low-scoring affairs, a two-game sweep seems eminently possible.
Still, the Cubs finished the season with a .220 average, the worst in team history, surpassing the 1981 team that hit .236 in a strike-shortened year. The ’81 Cubs went 38-65 and finished in last place in the NL East, striking out a league-worst 611 times in 106 games. Amazingly, the 2020 team won its division and had almost as many strikeouts (568) in only 60 games.
Darvish will be making his first postseason start since Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, when he was chased in the second inning after putting the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 5-0 hole against the Houston Astros. History tells us the 2017 Astros cheated by stealing signs, but Darvish’s numbers still stand. He went 0-2 with a 21.60 ERA in his two World Series starts, and three years later he finally gets a chance to make amends.
How far the Cubs can go after beating the Marlins is the bigger question. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and the rest of the lineup need to heat up, and the pitching has to be nearly perfect in case the offense remains on snooze. In an era of power pitchers, the Cubs are like an old black-and-white Zenith during the switchover to color in the 1960s. They averaged 91.9 mph on fastball velocity, lowest in the majors and nearly 3 mph lower than the major-league-leading Dodgers.
They’ll need Jon Lester and Alec Mills to do more painting — and Ross to have an early hook if they don’t.
Either way, the road to the World Series in Texas starts now.
The Cubs and Sox took crooked paths to this point, but at least they’re still standing.
In a season like this one, that counts for something.
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.